NEWTON, N.J. — The holy card for Benedictine Brother Marinus LaRue's funeral stated simply that he was a monk of St. Paul's Abbey here.
It listed the dates of his birth, profession and death and quoted the Rule of St. Benedict. Nowhere did it refer to one of the most dramatic maritime rescues in military history, which Brother Marinus directed.
As skipper of the S.S. Meredith Victory, a Merchant Marine vessel used as a supply ship during the Korean War, then-Capt. Leonard LaRue brought 14,000 North Korean civilians through perilous waters to safety on Christmas Day, 1950.
To South Korean president Syngman Rhee, who honored the monk in 1958 with the Presidential Unit Citation, the rescue was an “inspiring example of Christian faith in action.” The U.S. Maritime Administration called it the “greatest rescue by a single ship in the annals of the sea.”
Brother Marinus’ feat was the subject of a book by former Washington Post reporter Bill Gilbert, Ship of Miracles, published last year. “It was a miracle they could put 14,000 people on the ship, it was a miracle they got through the minefields, it was a miracle the enemy never caught up with them,” Gilbert told the Register.
But it is not something for which this monk would have taken credit. “God's own hand was at the helm of my ship,” he once said.
The Benedictine, who died Oct. 14 at the age of 87, was remembered as a veteran who humbly accepted praise for his heroism but felt that he was just doing his job. Before becoming captain of the Meredith, he had seen action in the treacherous Murmansk run of World War II. But rather than seek higher positions in military or civilian life, he chose to live out his days in prayer, service and relative anonymity. Four years after the Korean rescue, he retired from the Merchant Marines and entered an abbey not far from his home town of Philadelphia. For the next 55 years he lived in obedience to another “captain,” accepting tasks as menial as dishwashing, working in the gift shop or ringing the wakeup bell each morning.
He “left the life of the sea with all its drama and heroic opportunities for the intimacy of a daily-sustained relationship with the Lord and his Mother,” said Father Joel Macul, abbot of St. Paul's, in a homily at the monk's funeral Oct. 17. “In his own way Brother Marinus was sharing in the cup of the Lord's suffering until he comes again in glory. In the Eucharist he believed he was joining the inhumanity he had witnessed around the world to the saving humanity of Christ who died that all might be free and all might have a lasting home-land.”
Prayers and Perils
Chartered by the Military Sea Transportation Service, the Meredith Victory sailed from Norfolk, Va., in July 1950. J. Robert Lunney, its staff officer, remembers a stop in San Francisco, where LaRue made a point of entering a church to pray for the ship and its men before setting off on the trans-Pacific mission.
‘God's own hand was at the helm of my ship, he once said.’
In December of that year, during the Chosin Reservoir campaign, the ship received emergency orders to deliver 10,000 tons of jet fuel to a Marine fighter base at Hungnam, 138 miles behind enemy lines. Getting there required sailing through heavily mined waters.
But because the fighter base was evacuated under heavy enemy pressure, the vessel was ordered south to offload the fuel at the South Korean port of Pusan.
Later in the month, just a few days before Christmas, the ship had to sail back to Hungnam, where the Army asked LaRue if he would take the last of 100,000 refugees. Because the Meredith Victory was a civilian ship, it could not be ordered to do so. But the refugees were fleeing almost certain execution by the communist forces for cooperating with the enemy during the Chosin campaign. LaRue thought of the first Christmas Eve, when “there was no room” for a certain couple, later fleeing persecution themselves, and took pity on the North Korean civilians.
“He didn't look to his left or to his right, but said, ‘I will take the ship and lift off as many refugees as I can,’” Lunney recalled. On the 455-foot cargo ship, which was built to accommodate only 60 crew and passengers, 14,000 men, women and children were squeezed into every available hatch and hole.
The ship arrived at Pusan on Christmas Eve, but port officials, already overwhelmed with refugees, waved it off to the island of Koje, some 50 miles southwest. Finally, on Christmas Day, the refugees were brought ashore aboard Naval landing crafts. Not one life was lost, in spite of three days of cold, very little food and having to sail through minefields on a ship still carrying highly explosive jet fuel. In fact, by the time the refugees disembarked, five births had increased their numbers.
Lunney, an attorney in White Plains, N.Y., said Brother Marinus later confided his fear that a shell would fall short from one the U.S. warships, which were helping to hold the enemy back and allow the refugees to escape. If the Meredith had been hit, it would have been disastrous. But LaRue never second-guessed his decision to take the refugees. Even if all 14,000 had been lost in such a disaster, LaRue felt confident about being able to stand before God and say he did the right thing, Lunney told the Register.
Years later, when Lunney visited him at the abbey, the former staff officer asked his captain to explain to his 10-year-old son why he took the risk. “The answer is in the holy Bible,” the monk gently told the boy as he placed his hand on a testament. “No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends.”
“One of the first maxims a man learns in going to sea is to always give another man a hand with a job he cannot do himself,” Brother Marinus said at the National Press Club in 1960, accepting the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal. “The entire safety of the vessel and all that she carries depends on this principle. You might say that this is a corollary of ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
A Contemplative Captain
Brother Marinus’ decision to enter religious life was made with the same calm, prayerful reasoning he gave to his nautical decisions, without much apparent agonizing or fanfare.
He simply felt it was something God wanted him to do, according to Gilbert. And he said lines written by Trappist Father Raphael Simon swayed him: “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances. To seek him, the greatest adventure. To find him, the greatest human achievement.”
According to Father Macul, Brother Marinus was “deeply impressed” by a “kindly old” Swiss Benedictine missionary from Bahia, Brazil, who was a passenger on one of his ships. And during an illness in Tokyo, when he was reflecting on the purpose of his life, he was visited by a Benedictine chaplain.
Lunney remembers being on deck with him at night, when the contemplative captain was navigating.
The expanse of the sea and the vastness of the sky prompted him to reflect on the parables of Christ and the great questions of philosophy.
“I think he wanted to devote himself to the life he was trying to live, clean and good-living, and maybe he sought the comfort of a community in which he could do that,” Lunney said.
The monk approached Benedictine life “with great faith in God,” said Father Augustine Hinches, prior of St. Paul's.
Defend Us in Battle
Lunney felt Brother Marinus was proud of his military service and believed that he viewed war as a humanitarian effort to the extent that it “preserves the integrity of a nation and the lives of a people.” During his National Press Club speech, Brother Marinus said that the threat to the integrity of Korea was a force that was determined to “enslave all mankind.”
“In answer to this diabolic evil which is communism and to the other satanic forces that assail us both as a nation, but even more so as individuals, let us ask God daily, in our own words, to give us the backbone to live fully and completely his Ten Commandments.”
He also mentioned that, coincidentally, North Korea had been mission territory for his Benedictine congregation. And some of the Benedictine priests and brothers had been martyred at the hands of the communists.
Now, as Brother Marinus is laid to rest and as America fights another war, against an enemy he might also term diabolical, Korea will become an important part of the abbey he loved. Soon after Brother Marinus’ funeral, Father Macul traveled to Waegwan, South Korea, to work out details about several monks there moving to the New Jersey abbey.
“In the United States, the vocation shortage is acute,” Father Hinches said, “and the Korean house has a good number of monks.”